The Importance of Poetry Mentors

Recently someone asked me which poet or poets influenced me the most in writing poetry and why. It would be great if I could just name one of two, but different poets have been important to me at each stage of my development in that medium.

When I was an undergraduate and still finding my way in the poetry universe, I fell for
William Carlos Williams. His straightforward, down-to-earth lyrics spoke to me in ways that other poets’ work hadn’t. He seemed to be speaking from inside experiences that I wcw copycould relate to. At that point in my evolution, I wanted something clear and accessible. Here’s an example: “This is just to say.”

This is just to say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

It amazed me that a few simple unadorned words could carry such a punch. The plums remind me of the apple that Eve partakes of in the Garden of Eden. Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge awakens her to an awareness of good and evil. As with Eve, the plums are something that the speaker can’t resist.

Later, I discovered Wallace Stevens, who joined my list of revered poets. His lyrics were the opposite of Williams’ work. They weren’t just moments captured on the page but philosophical statements that also had layers of meaning. I’m thinking here of “The Emperor of Ice Cream”:

ws copyCall the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

I don’t plan to do an explication de texte of this poem, but I want to point out how delicious the language is that Stevens uses, how musical the sounds: “whip in kitchen cups concupiscent curds,” “wenches dawdle in such dress,” “the dresser of deal,” and “three glass knobs.” The word choice in Stevens’ poem is totally different from Williams’ selection, creating particular effects.

I went through a period of confessing with the more confessional poets (Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds to name just three). But when I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program at SF State, the poet/teacher Kathleen Fraser introduced me to many innovative poets that I hadn’t heard of till then: Fraser herself, of course; Anna-Marie Albiach; Rae Armantrout, Barbara Guest; Carla Harryman; Lyn Hejinian; Susan Howe; Leslie Scalapino; and Rosmarie Waldrop.

This exposure to poets whose work defied the traditional lyric and narrative poem cracked open another poetic universe for me. I have done some experimental work myself, but the most important thing I learned from this exposure was to play more with words and be open to letting them connect with one another in ways that I would not have allowed if I hadn’t taken the detour into invention. The result has been always illuminating, reminding me of how a foreign language can take us into new ways of perceiving the world. To just view the moon through our English idiom is to limit our understanding of it. But to see it through Latin or Greek gives a totally new perspective.

I’ll end with a more experimental example from my own work that was just accepted for publication by Bone Bouquet:

Big Lucks

 She told me to

surrender but

 

I didn’t know

what the word meant

 

I found a bird

with a knot

 

in its chest

that I tried to

 

undo but a kite

ran away

 

with me   I

thought a monster

 

would save

me   One jogged

 

past named Mary

She had mustard

 

written across

her chest and the

 

moon dropped a boy

into a bag

 

It seemed better

than giving birth

 

in a zoo   All

that junk lying

around in a

subway   Some janitor

 

got ambitious

and threw the cat

into the box

I now am holding

 

 

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